In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Romantic Compromises: The agony of the present, the victory of fear, and the persistence of hope

Hope is the passion for the possible

"Hope is the passion for the possible." Soren Kierkegaard
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast." Alexander Pope

Romantic compromises involve dissatisfaction from the present, persistent hope for having a better alternative and fear for taking the steps for fulfilling this hope. There is in romantic compromises a complex mixture of the present and the future-the present is painful, changing it seems to be too costly in the close future, but the distant future seems to be promising.

Like happiness and sadness, hope and fear are directed at our own fortune; the importance of all these emotions stems from the importance of the personal concern in emotions. Indeed, Aquinas considers these four emotions as the principal emotions. However, whereas happiness and sadness are concerned with our present fortune, hope and fear are concerned with future fortune; in this sense, the former seem to be more crucial. Indeed, happiness and sadness tend to be more intense than hope and fear.

The temporal distance existing in hope and in fear between the agent and the emotional object reduces emotional intensity-as do other types of distance. At a distance, the impact of various events are often perceived to be lesser than they actually are. Accordingly, if future events are to have emotional impact upon us, they need to be of considerably greater magnitude than present events, and their appearance should be perceived to be imminent. The attitude of "Out of sight, out of mind," expresses such a reduced impact.

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Although the temporal distance of the future typically weakens its impact, the future has another aspect which may intensify the impact of its events: the future has a longer duration than the present and hence future events may occupy us for a longer period. As Charles Kettering said, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there." If indeed a future event is the focus of our attention for a long time, the event may be perceived as stronger and more central for us.

Hope and fear involve two basic evaluations, which assess: (a) the positive or negative nature of the prospective event; and (b) the probability of the possible event occurring. The more that the event is evaluated as positive and significant, the greater the hope is; and the more it is evaluated as negative and dangerous, the greater the fear is. We cannot hope for something that we perceive to be negative or insignificant. Similarly, an event that we perceive as having no chance of being actualized will not generate significant hope or fear. Hope does not merely involve a desire for a certain situation, but also the belief that the desired situation is probable despite indications to the contrary.

Romantic compromises involve yearning for the not pursued possible and settling for an inferior option. The dissonance between the possible and the actual, and the dissonance between the better and the inferior are at the basis of compromises. To compromise is to give up the pursuit of a better prospect, which is in principle feasible, in order not to risk an actual situation, which is perceived to be inferior.

Romantic compromises involve then the agony of the present, the victory of fear, and the persistence of hope. Accordingly, the depth of the compromise and its impact depend on the above two factors-the positive nature of the alternative and the probability of getting it. The greater the perceived quality and availability of the alternative is, the more painful the compromise is. In typical cases of romantic compromises, the issue of availability carries greater weight, as it expresses the belief that our situation could easily have been better.

Sometimes the agony of the compromising present can be based upon a better past experience. In both cases we are speaking about something that is possible but is not present now.

Like hope, romantic compromises involve a desire for a better alternative and the belief that this alternative is feasible. The hope element in romantic compromises is typically initiated when we confront events that cause an increase in the probability of the better alternative. The element of probability is what distinguishes hope from fantasy. Unlike hope, in fantasy the cognitive element of believing that the desired situation is probable is not significant. Although hope involves future uncertainties, the uncertainties should not be too great. When the probability of attainment is unrealistically low, hope is usually inappropriate, and it is often not intense; in this sense, hope involves realistic imagination. Accordingly, the feeling of making romantic compromises will increase when the probability of achieving the better alternative will increase.

The dramatic increase in modern society in the availability of romantic alternatives has considerably increased the probability of the hope factor in romantic compromises and has made those compromises more prevalent and more intense. Moreover, as the fear of risking the present situation is lower (although it still exists), the frustration of maintaining such a compromise is increased as well.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, do not suffer when you consider me to be a compromise, do not fear making changes, and keep alive your hopes for a better alternative. I am in a similar situation and will do the same."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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